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Since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic on 11 March 2020, more than 3 million people have died. Economies the world over have buckled. And the social consequences of the restrictions that governments imposed to limit the spread of the virus have been far-reaching. Marginalized people have suffered the most. 

Amid the chaos, signs emerged proving that communities with the rights to use and manage forests are better weathering the storm. 

After hearing anecdotal reports suggesting this resilience in the early months of the pandemic, RECOFTC and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations teamed up to better understand if and how community forestry could increase people’s coping strategies in a time of crisis.

What is community forestry? 
Community forestry is a broad term for approaches that empower local people to manage, protect and benefit from forests, which they may have relied upon for generations. These approaches have different names: social forestry, village forestry, participatory forestry, community-based forest management and people-centred forestry. The approaches vary in the extent to which they give communities the rights to use and benefit from forest resources under formal and customary law.

The researchers spoke with hundreds of people across seven Asian countries with different forms of community-based forest management: Cambodia, Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Viet Nam. The initial survey conducted in July and August 2020 was followed by a more focused survey in two communities in each country in December 2020 and January 2021.

This Special Report summarizes the findings from the research and identifies ways to strengthen community forestry during the remainder of the pandemic and for the post-pandemic recovery.

Through the voices of people who live and work there, it highlights examples of forest communities that dealt particularly well after the onset of the pandemic restrictions. It also singles out success factors and makes recommendations for reinforcing and replicating these conditions elsewhere. 

Both surveys revealed that negative impacts on livelihoods and food security related to the pandemic lockdowns were widespread across all seven countries. Eighty percent of the 435 people interviewed in the initial survey said they suffered such effects. Travel restrictions, export bans and market closures reduced incomes, while the cost of imported food increased, putting pressure on household budgets.

The large numbers of former migrants to urban areas, who lost their jobs when restrictions were imposed, returned to their native villages. Their return added to the economic burdens of forest communities. In Cambodia and Myanmar, one in five respondents reported an increase in illegal activities as a major concern, with community members often the perpetrators.

Map of survey locations
RECOFTC conducted research in seven countries in July and August 2020 and in December 2020 and January 2021. The maps shows locations of the 14 community forests covered in Phase 2 of the study.

As this Special Report emphasizes, community forestry increased people’s resilience to the shock of the pandemic-related restrictions by strengthening the assets that underpin sustainable livelihoods.

Chapter 1 focuses on the human and social assets—the knowledge, skills and networks developed through community forestry that made a difference after the onset of the pandemic restrictions. Chapter 2 describes how community forests provided food and other products, particularly to households most in need during the survey period. Chapter 3 touches on ways community forests supported household finances.

The report concludes with direction on how community forestry can feature in pandemic recovery plans and thus contribute towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.